Psychohistorians sometimes need to go beyond childhood, parenting practices, and parent-child relationships, to life stories handed down through generations. These stories, sometimes traumatic and disturbing, become real as people feel the pain of the past. It could be repeated in every dream, or manifest in either an inability to trust others or in feeling that something is being hidden from her/him while every elder in the family is denying any secrets. This is also my story, which I will discuss below.

So how is it possible that something related to traumatic events that happened in one generation can be passed on to another family member one or two generations apart even if these people never met or had an opportunity to discuss these topics or observe each other’s behavior? It can happen through the transgenerational transmission of trauma as well as its psychological, neurobiological, and epigenetic mechanisms. Bringing epigenetics to an explanation of transgenerational trauma (by two scientists: Moshe Szyf, molecular biologist and geneticist; and Michael Meaney, the neurobiologist) became the point of enlightenment and contention, supplying more oil to the fire of the old nature/nurture controversy. For me though, their discoveries became the most extraordinary events of the 21st century. Their work showed that DNA does not really change in trauma, but traumatic experiences leave “molecular scars” on one’s DNA, not allowing the genes to be expressed in a normally intended fashion. These “scars” (e.g., represented by small methyl groups, CH3) can be passed on to the next generations attached to one’s DNA code. Methyl molecules can be taken off (erased from) the genetic material by using, for example, demethylators. But so far, these are available only in the form of intra-cerebral injections, and only for lab experiments on rats. But, I propose that—because various therapies and support tools work—they serve as demethylators too; they are not as fast as the injections, but they can leave a lasting change. The epigenome is like life’s etch-a-sketch: it can be tailored to clean up one’s family curse.

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First, we need to understand the definitions and differences between trauma and transgenerational trauma. Trauma happens when one’s psyche is overwhelmed as a result of severe emotionally distressing or life-threatening event(s). These could be the loss of a loved adult or child, physical or sexual abuse, domestic violence, kidnapping, divorce, personal injury, war, school or gang violence, man-made or natural disasters, getting a “verdict” about uncurable illness in oneself or a loved one, a developmental condition diagnosis in one’s child, or witnessing or even hearing about any of these events. It’s not about how severe the event is, but how one’s individual or collective psyche can manage its processing, and how she, he, or they can make sense of it. That is the main thing: humans have to make sense of things. It’s when things don’t make sense that we can get overwhelmed and traumatized, as our assumptions about the world, the scaffolding of our beings, are getting shattered. Some of these main assumptions are that the world is benevolent, meaningful, and just, and our worth relies on such a world.

Then, we often tend to repeat the event using the psychological tool of “ruminations”—as Selma Fraiberg once said, “trauma demands repetition.” When trauma is repeated—consciously or not—it becomes a daily guest at our life’s table (even if it is an uninvited guest) or a “ghost in the nursery” (Fraiberg et al., 1975), hovering over us from our early days. So, the only ways to process trauma are to deny/assimilate or acknowledge/accommodate it. If we deny trauma, we assimilate it, and trauma penetrates every fiber of our being. Then trauma becomes us or vice-versa. If we acknowledge and accommodate trauma by offering it a place at the table and not allowing it to penetrate our being, then we can even see some positive outcomes of processing any traumatic event. This is the so-called post-traumatic growth phenomenon (PTG) that is still very often misunderstood, even by some seasoned trauma practitioners.

When we talk about transgenerational trauma, we imply that traumatic experiences of the family or group members impact the development of their children or grandchildren, while they do not even know about the traumas of their parents and grandparents. Sometimes they do know, but often they don’t. How is this possible? As a neurologist, I always try to localize the problem by appealing to neural anatomy and making sense of symptoms through it. But to understand transgenerational trauma, I had to dig deeper.

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As Theodore Roethke said, “In the dark time, the eye begins to see.” So to understand and reconcile our transgenerational past, we have to dig deeper, where it is sometimes very dark.

Luciana Braga et al. offer interviews with the offspring, grouping them by patterns of communication of one’s lived experiences to their children, as well as the ways the children dealt with their perceptions of traumatic experiences communicated to them. One of the interviewees stated that his parents’ past was “their secret.” He said that there is no relation of love but the “survival relation,” and that the whole strategy of parenting was to infuse their children with the “Holocaust survival handbook,” making sure they “recognize the signs of the disaster before others do.” But other participants of that study also talked about hope and resilience. One participant remembered how his mother didn’t tell her children fairytales but instead shared parts of her own story that “always had a message of hope. She managed to stay in this bubble… like ‘life is beautiful’” (Braga et al., 2012).

Trauma has many faces, and the same can be said about the trauma’s legacies. One of them, not spoken too much about, became the “stolen” and “lost” generations phenomena. The “lost generations” were produced as a result of World War I—a generation of adults who were “disoriented, wandering, directionless” and who were disconnected from their parents’ generation because their parents’ “American Dream” spirit was broken by experiencing the brutal slaughter of 18 million people (Longley, 2022). In the meantime, the “stolen generations” were produced not by brutalities of wars, but by the policies of assimilation (in 1910-1970 Australia and Canada) when Indigenous children were taken away from their families, from their cultural and traditional norms of being, and placed in residential schools, to be “acculturated” in the White society and to have a better life. Unfortunately, they found themselves to be physically and mentally abused without parents around who could have protected them. Both of these groups need to be intensely probed in transgenerational trauma and resilience research.

There are also very “quiet” atrocities that happen on an individual level. They do not cause an obvious massive loss of life or the lost or stolen generations, but they produce a very complex transgenerational trauma phenomenon, which we do not have a clear insight on. One of the examples is the story of Alice Miller, a famous childhood researcher, children’s advocate, psychoanalyst, and author. She allowed her son Martin to be beaten viciously on a

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daily basis by his father. The 2021 documentary, Who’s Afraid of Alice Miller (by the Swiss filmmaker Daniel Howald), took Martin Miller and the audience back to Poland where both Alice and her husband were from. She was a young Jewish woman with Gentile papers, and he was a Nazi sympathizer. Both were Warsaw underground university students. From this documentary, we found out that Alice Miller was terrified and in a survival mode for seemingly most of her life. I remember vividly her chilling words in the documentary as she said: “like a hunted deer that wants to survive… Whenever you went, you risked being exposed as a Jew and handed over to the Gestapo.”

So, when Martin said that his mother saw in him the enemy pursuing her, it was probably true: she projected things onto Martin that were connected to her own persecutory experiences. Some reflections on the documentary about this Alice-Martin story that were published on the Internet rightfully coined it as the “Holocaust legacy story.” But what was not in the documentary were Alice’s childhood experiences, which she revealed in her 1990 semi-biographical book, Banished knowledge: Facing childhood injuries. She wrote about her own abuse as a child, having gained insight from the spontaneous paintings she created as an adult. Maybe that is why she told her son that she “was not chosen to be a good mother.” In addition, some of her other books and interviews speak to the topic touched upon above. In regards to victims and perpetrators, she believed that every mistreated child, a victim, has a high potential of becoming an abuser, bringing his infantile hatred upon others, and even upon mankind, like Hitler.

As James Baldwin said on January 14, 1962, in The New York Times, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The field of transgenerational trauma is being increasingly explored. Various practitioners are starting to acknowledge it, digging deeper and expanding it to the territory of neurobiology (my cup of tea). They are looking at the various outcomes of transgenerational trauma and resilience as well as the ways of healing it, for what we don’t heal tends to repeat itself.

What will this transgenerational trauma field benefit from now? It will benefit from the conversations in it being transgenerational, transdisciplinary, transhumanistic, and by everyone engaging in it from a non-judgmental, not right-or-wrong, not taking sides (and even from an empathic) position. I appreciate D.W.

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Winnicott’s work for his developmental and hopeful view on humanity as well as his idea of “capacities” (e.g., for concern, to believe), which we can expand here in terms of nurturing our capacity for empathy to those who we do not share the experiences of or the views they hold. There are so many hot spots right now in the world, and every hot spot has the potential for transgenerational trauma. We need to work on examining each historical conflict while navigating through many lenses and views rather than taking sides because there are many more sides to each story than meet the eye.

There are many recognized mass atrocities committed by some groups, usually holding state power, against other group(s) of people. Examples range from the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians (circa WWI); the 19th-20th centuries pogroms of Jews in Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Germany, Syria, Iraq, and then the Holocaust, perpetrated by Nazis of many countries and states, against Jews and other alleged sub-humans; and the killings and tortures committed by Pinochet’s regime in Chile, Fidel Castro’s in Cuba and Mao Zedong’s in China, especially during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Joseph Stalin’s in the former Soviet Union, and by the hardline Hutu government against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, just to name a few. These mass atrocities are expected to cause an impact on the next generations of people, and what is most interesting, this impact is felt by the next generations of both, the victims and the perpetrators. As Ursula Duba (1995) recounts in her poetry in Tales from a Child of the Enemy, it is very difficult to un-know what you know about your family’s traumatic events, and it is difficult at times to empathize:

When  Iraq  is  bombed
and  I  tell  her
how  enraged  I  am
at  attacks  at  civilians
no  matter  what  the  reasons
because  I  remember  how  it  feels


my  Greek  friend  leans  back
and  I  see  in  her  eyes
that  I  am  the  child  of  her  enemies
she  remembers  the  atrocities
committed  by  my  [German] people
in  her  native  village

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                         in  the  mountains  of  Greece… (pp. 1-3)

I can relate to it from both positions!  I too, feel the pain of war-torn Ukraine, the place where I lived during my childhood, and I empathize with the Ukrainian people, the victims who are being killed, wounded, and displaced to nowhere, to the abyss!  Some of these people’s parents were also the victims of Stalin’s Holodomor (“death from starvation”) of 1931-1932, a consequence of the system of rationing that existed in the USSR then until 1935. Sadly, no information about Holodomor was ever surfacing in conversations, publications, or people’s stories, although it was not prohibited. We learned about it from the visits to local museums.

I also feel the pain of the Russian people in Donbas who represent about half of the population of the region that wanted to separate from Ukraine, even though they are considered to be the aggressors. They wanted to separate after a successful anti-Russian 2014 coup that installed a government that preached an anti-corruption but became the most corrupt government of what is considered the most corrupt country in Eurasia. That 2014 Ukrainian government refused to allow the people of Donbas to live free in the newly organized republics and allowed the “Maidan Revolution” (officially called the “Dignity Revolution,” to put a positive light on it), which turned bloody because the nationalists’ “far-right” groups (like the ultra-nationalist group “Right Sector”) took over “security” of the nation. Sometimes, they used heavy chains and metal spiked balls to kill peaceful protesters by bludgeoning them to death. Occasionally, they used traditional arms, or they burned people alive (such as in 2014 in Odessa where 39 people were burned in the Union Building where they hid from a metal-chain-attack by pro-Nazis Right-wingers).

In the last decade, Fascistic slogans have become very common in Ukraine. The only difference between them and the German Nazis is that their targets are Russians rather than Jews. Does that make it right that even five to ten-year-old children are taught in military summer camps, “Moskaliaku – na gyliaku!”   (“Moskaliaku” is a double pejorative word for a Russian person, and “na gyliaku” is to kill by hanging on a branch.)  Watch a 47-second video from 2014, eight long years before the war, with English subtitles, showing teenagers collected on public squares, shouting the same slogans—one short video is worth a million words: https://youtu.be/5VRli1Ybah4. Another video from three years ago: https://youtu.be/YR5TZnFZ4tg.)

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Another sign of the Nazification of Ukraine is the fact that monuments to Petlyura and Bandera are erected all over Ukraine. Simon Petlyura’s anti-Semitism is the reason my Mom’s family was diminished by three-quarters: three of my grandma’s brothers were quartered by horses during pogroms. Their “crime” was promoting literacy for Jewish youth in Ukrainian shtetls. Stepan Bandera, a vicious Ukrainian pro-Nazi during WWII, terrorized Jews, Russians, and Poles, and was responsible for carrying out much of the Holocaust in Ukraine as German troops mostly left to fight the Battle of Stalingrad in Russia. He was elevated to “Hero of Ukraine” status, the highest honor in the land. He was responsible for the brutal treatment of Jews in Mogilev’s ghetto where my mom’s family was hiding underground until Soviet troops liberated them. There is much more to the misery my family suffered at the hands of Ukrainian pro-Nazi nationalists. I feel transgenerational trauma only now, with the refusal of some people, even those I respect and love, to hear all sides of the story and deny the Nazification of Ukraine, while all the facts are before us, even if American media has a one-sided perspective.

What I wrote above is not intended to offer an opinion that “Putin was/Russians were right” to start the war; all the fibers of my soul are anti-war. But I hope that we can look at every event, character, and trauma as transdisciplinary psychohistorians and not as politicians or opinionated hardliners. I hope we can listen to those who experience transgenerational phenomena because we can—and we will—hurt the very people who we cherish in our families, our communities, and our organizations, if we behave otherwise. In the meantime, our psychohistorical community can become the safest healing place for anyone’s transgenerational trauma to be worked on, to promote individual and collective health and peace.

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References:

  • Duba, Ursula (1995). Tales from a child of the enemy. Penguin Books (pp. 1-3).
  • Fraiberg, Selma; Adelson, E.; & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 14(3), 387-421.
  • Howald, Daniel. (2021). Who’s afraid of Alice Miller [Film]. Royal Films & Swissdok.
  • Longley, R. (2022, March 2). The lost generation and the writers who described their world. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-lost-generation-4159302

Authors:

Inna Rozentsvit

Inna Rozentsvit, MD, PhD, MBA, MSciEd, is a neurologist and neurorehabilitation specialist trained in psychoanalysis. She is a founder and neuropsychoeducator at the non-profit organization NeurorecoverySolutions, Inc., a programs director at the Object Relations Institute for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, and editor-in-chief of the ORI Academic Press, MindMend Publishing Co., and MindConsiliums, the interdisciplinary journal.
She may be contacted at inna.rozentsvit@gmail.com or www.innarozentsvit.com. 

How to Cite This:

Rozentsvit, I. (2022). Transgenerational phenomena: What these have to do with psychohistory? Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 1-8.

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